MILLER TIME G. Wayne Miller, master of the “inside story," leaves the Providence Journal after 41 years. Now, he's onto his next, possibly big, new thing.
G. WAYNE MILLER, on the set the TV program, "Story in the Public Square" CREDIT: Brian Jones
(Note: I wrote this without reading a recent tribute by Providence Journal columnist Mark Patinkin to Wayne Miller and another reporter, Linda Borg. The Journal last week cut off its alumni, including me, from free papers, once a retirement perk. I mention this in case Patinkin and I have - inadvertently - touched on similar themes. - Brian Jones)
G. WAYNE MILLER, reflecting on a seven-part series for the Providence Journal in 1995 about the toy-making giant, Hasbro, Inc., mentioned that the project had taken him two years to report and write. Later, Miller upped his estimate, saying that “when all was said and done,” he actually spent nearly five years on “Toy Soldiers,” including the series itself, plus two books that sprang from the newspaper version, "Toy Wars," published in 1998 and the other, "Kid Number One," a ‘prequel/sequel,’ that appeared in 2019. This says something about Miller’s tenacity, that once he gets his teeth into a “good” story, he is stubbornly unwilling to let go of it. But it also highlights two characteristics that make him an unusual journalist, his mastery of the “inside story" – he calls it “immersive reporting” – plus his entrepreneurial talent for exploiting any technology, old or new, that allows him to tell and sell his stories to the widest audiences. Earlier this month, Miller announced that he was leaving the Journal after an astonishing run of 41 years and 9 days, and that he is looking forward to something new – he put it this way in an email to me: “As for the potential ahead, I will have news on that soon enough!” One has to be careful about singling out just one of the scores, perhaps hundreds, of reporters, editors, photographers, artists who have worked at the Journal, especially during its authentically Golden Years in the last century. It was a time when the newspaper was a media colossus, serving as Rhode Island’s indispensable encyclopedia of statewide news, as well as the hometown paper to each of state’s 39 cities and towns, via a dozen strategically located news “bureaus” whose reporters churned out so much news about town council, school committee, zoning board meetings, parade and church supper agendas and speeding ticket citations, that it needed multiple editions in the morning, and multiple editions in the afternoon, to publish their output. Moreover, the Journal Company operated a mini-empire of related businesses, including printing plants that printed major news magazines among other publications, a stable of TV stations, a cable TV system, a cellular telephone company and probably more I don’t know about. The Journal’s presses seemed to print not just a newspaper, but money, a lot of it lavished on a outsized staff of 350 reporters reporters, artists, photographers and editors, many of whom went on to starring roles at the nation’s most influential papers, such as the New York Times, whose Journal alumni association includes Dan Barry, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, C. J. Chivers, Helene Cooper, Cory Dean and Terry Schwadron – plus the Times’ top dog, publisher A. G. Sulzberger. So, its a little problematic to mention just one byline – “G. Wayne Miller” – because there have been lots of equally, perhaps even more eloquent wordsmiths, hungrier investigative “sharks” and just as dogged boots-on-the-ground reporters, whose everyday output was, and deserved to be, received as Gospel by many of its readers, some of whom despised the paper’s monopoly clout, but trusted its professionalism. But it's worthwhile to review some of what Miller accomplished. (For a fuller and more authoritative account, if you have lots of time, go to Miller’s own website, proof that people don’t do what Miller does because they lack an ego or are shy about their achievements. Here’s the link: http://www.gwaynemiller.com
AN EASY WAY to get a sense of Miller’s work is the “Toy Soldiers” series I referred to at the beginning of this piece, mainly because Part 5 – “Black Tuesday” – is readily available in one of the Journal’s self-published “How I Wrote the Story” handbooks that reprinted outstanding Journal stories, along with their writers’ accounts of what they did to produce them. You might expect Miller’s Hasbro story to focus on a carefree bunch of elves bouncing around the corporation’s Pawtucket, R.I. headquarters, whistling while turning out new versions of G.I. Joe, Play-Doh, Mr. Potato Head and Monopoly. Instead, Part 5 begins with a distressing round of firings, in which the company tossed some of its top executives and creative talent under one of its Playskool busses in a desperate plan for corporate survival, bigger profits and love from Wall Street investors. The piece begins with a hired consultant’s video instructions about the proper way to fire your workforce: do it with “security” out of sight, but handy in case things get out of hand during individual sessions that should last no more than 7 to 10 minutes, since “more time is usually not productive.” Miller wrote how things played out: In restrooms, women were sobbing. The terminated were emptying drawers and clearing off desks; their phones were dead, their card keys useless for locks. A senior executive who’d been let go had trashed his office. But nearly everyone else signed their releases, took their severance packages and went numbly into the perfect blue day. Nice summary. But the real power of the account is what the reader hears from The Fired, from the people who fired them and from the chairman of the board, Alan Hassenfeld, who green-lighted his top lieutenant plan to arrange and carry out the firing campaign; the chairman compared corporations to heart patients in need of radical surgery: “… the blood flow and the oxygen can’t get to the heart properly. And after a while it strangles and people have a complete blockage. Sometimes you have to do bypass surgery in order to get the freshness and blood flowing again.” How did Miller know all of this? “Immersive reporting,” which he did not invent, but perfected. In the Habsro case, he persuaded Hassenfeld and other brass to let him inside their Fortune 500 lair, to roam its offices, restrooms, boardrooms and cafeterias to witness day-to-day operations, to talk to and hear from many of its players – winners and losers – and finally to chronicle, objectively and in detail, what really happened in the place where G.I. Joe was born and where he was loved - for as long as he stayed true to his mission, returning positive net income. It sounds crazy, I know. What fool would ever let Wayne Miller or any other reporter anywhere near them? But Miller did that, making other people’s lives his own, living with and staying with his people for as long as it took, and it always took lots of time. During my own Journal career, a mere 35 years that overlapped some of Miller’s 41, I could barely tolerate an interview that lasted more than one hour, and I grew antsy at the prospect of having to spend two hours, much less a full day with somebody I was writing about. Part of that is a personal touch of attention deficit disorder. But for me, much of journalism’s narcotic appeal is not just the adventure of the story you’re working on today, but the prospect of the next one, and the one after that, always something new, different, amazing and fresh. But Miller did this immersive thing over and over and over. He did it with a big league surgeon (he was given his own locker in the physicians’ changing room so he could easily access the guy’s operating suite), a NASCAR racing team, a high school senior class, a politician, welfare recipients and persons with developmental disabilities. Hours, months, years of reporting. Then the series. Then the book.
WHY DID THEY TRUST HIM? Was it the fact – which Miller readily shares – that he’d graduated from Harvard? But Ron DeSantis and Ted Cruz also went to Harvard. So, It’s a mystery. What’s not a mystery is that Miller did not abuse that trust. His access to and relationships with his sources brings to mind the toxic hypothesis by the late writer Janet Malcolm. Malcolm famously wrote about another writer, Joe McGinniss, who wormed his way into the trust of Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor accused of slaughtering his family, then wrote that he thought MacDonald was guilty. Malcolm declared all writers to be scoundrels, first pretending to be their subjects' pals, only to leave them for dead when they started writing, “preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.'' Miller put the lie to Malcolm’s jaundiced theory. I never heard about anyone charging Miller with betrayal, deceit or even of a false note. I don’t remember anyone suing the Providence Journal – a company with lucrative pockets – for libel or deceit due to one of Miller’s stories. Miller not only had the trust of his news subjects, but also his editors and ultimately the paper’s top brass. One reason was that if Miller’s series were expensive, they also were exclusive. The inside story was the only kind of story that no competitor – print, radio, TV, Internet site, podcast – could match. Hasbro, or at least its products, may have been household names to families and their children, and its headquarters a fixture on the Rhode Island landscape, but no one except Wayne Miller could tell you the real, inside story of how Hasbro toyed with its rivals and played the zero sum game of Wall Street. Thus, Miller was able to harness what were the Journal’s vast resources, paycheck after paycheck, roll after giant roll of newsprint. And then book after book. I mean real books, from respectable publishers, books with hard covers, dust jackets and Library of Congress identification codes. This did not make Miller popular with everyone in the Journal newsroom. Some of his colleagues felt Miller’s leash was too long. Yes, he put in time on routine chores required by a daily local paper, working the weekend rotation, rushing to breaking news locations. But his desk was often vacant for days at a time, and there was grumbling about how he spent his exclusive Miller Time. But Miller Time was not “free” time. He used to tell me that he got up 5:30 a.m. morning so he could put in a couple of hours on his various projects – including novels he wrote just for fun, being a huge Stephen King fan. He doted on his two daughters and son. He was the chairman of the public library in the small town of Burrillville, where he lived for years, and where he hand-built an extension on the family’s house, which became his office and library. Simply put, Wayne Miller was and is the antithesis of a time-waster and malingerer. Another factor is that Miller is fast. I know that newspeople are supposed to be speed demons with “Hey, Sweetheart, get me rewrite” posters on their walls, who can turn out stories just as they are happening. But Miller is really quick. We once teamed up on some project about the Journal’s writing program (that’s correct, the paper had its own writing improvement project, one aspect of which was the aforementioned “How I Wrote the Story” books). Miller and I divided the work evenly; he finished in half the time it took me.
FINALLY, MILLER HAS MORE than a little of the entrepreneur in him. He sees possibilities for new or expanded ventures, especially in places where you don’t expect to find them. One example I’ve mentioned: newspaper series that lead to books. Another example: “Story in the Public Square.” It’s a weekly TV program, mainly interviews with writers, filmmakers and other “story-tellers.” Miller helped the Journal team up with Rhode Island PBS, the state’s public TV station and Salve Regina University, whose Jim Ludes, PhD, executive director of Salve’s Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, is the program’s co-host. Miller’s website says the broadcast airs in “22 markets,” has a podcast and is carried on satellite radio. I’ve just touched the surface. And I repeat that you could write something like this, and a lot longer, about many of the other women and men who have worked at the Journal, people who are my personal heroes, and who are, or should be, international journalism's super heroes. And it’s true Miller could not have done what he as without the Providence Journal and its resources. And that the Journal is just one of thousands of newspapers across America that now have disappeared or are about to. As I mentioned, the Journal once had a staff of 350; it’s website today lists a staff of 32, which includes Wayne Miller and another reporter who left when he did, and of course, who aren't there. Yesterday, just as I was finishing this piece, Miller, now 68, announced his promised next big thing, another collaboration with Salve Regina University and Ludes, which they call Ocean State Stories, "a new media outlet serving Rhode Island residents that will be devoted to long-form journalism about issues of importance." Will this project live up to its promise? It's vision? Its hype? G. Wayne Miller was there for the Providence Journal’s best years, and he did his part to make them extraordinary.
I'VE BEEN a reporter and writer for 58 years, long enough to have learned that journalists don't know very much, although I've met some smart ones. Mainly, what reporters know comes from asking other people questions and fretting about the answers. This blog is a successor to one inspired by our dog, Phoebe, who was smart, sweet and the antithesis of Donald Trump. She died Feb. 3, and I don't see getting over that very soon. Occasionally, I may try to reach her via cell phone.